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Alexander, Raymond Pacelocked

(13 October 1898–24 November 1974)
  • David A. Canton

Raymond Pace Alexander

At his desk in his law office, circa 1935-1940.

Collections of the University of Pennsylvania Archives.

Alexander, Raymond Pace (13 October 1898–24 November 1974), lawyer, judge, and civil rights leader, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the third son of Hillard Boone and Virginia Pace Alexander, both slaves in Virginia who were freed in 1865 and migrated to Philadelphia in 1880. His background was working-class poor and he grew up in Philadelphia's seventh ward, an all-black community made famous by W. E. B. Du Bois's seminal study The Philadelphia Negro (1899), which many consider the first work of urban sociology in the United States. Alexander's mother died when he was five and Alexander's father moved Alexander and his four siblings to live with his aunt in north Philadelphia. At eight years old he worked because, as he recalled, he wanted his father “to count him out of his calculations.” Hard work became a lifelong value for Alexander; he continued to work and go to school full-time over the next decade, until his last year at law school.

In 1912 Alexander entered Central High School, a prestigious all-boys school, and he was an exceptional student. He ran track and was the first black editor of the school newspaper, The Mirror. During his first year at Central, Alexander attended a lecture at Zion Baptist Church by the historian Carter G. Woodson, who had just received his PhD in history from Harvard University. In a Philadelphia Inquirer interview in 1968 Alexander recalled the impact of Woodson's talk, entitled “A Stranger in the House.” Woodson used history to illustrate African American contributions to world and American history; this made Alexander realize that African Americans were American citizens and a vital part of the nation. Woodson's address developed Alexander's racial consciousness as well as his racial confidence. Before he heard Woodson speak Alexander had mentioned that he had contemplated dropping out of Central, but he never gave a reason; perhaps some of his white teachers doubted his intelligence. Even though Alexander attended a white school in the North, white teachers having low expectations of black students was a national and not just a southern problem.

Alexander won a scholarship and in 1917 enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics. Alexander took a number of jobs, such as in the post office, to pay for school. In college his awareness of racism and segregation increased. There were a few black students at the University of Pennsylvania and the university prohibited black students from eating in the cafeteria. In 1921, Alexander who worked in New York City during the summer, filed a law suit against Madison Square Garden for not allowing him to use the its pool, but there is no record of the result. During his junior year in college a white movie theater manager tried to prevent Alexander and three of his friends from entering the theater in downtown Philadelphia. According to his wife, when the manager refused to let them enter “Alex began excitedly speaking in Spanish,” and the manager stated, “Why, they are not Niggers” and allowed the four to enter the theater. This incident was the final straw and at that moment Alexander declared that he must become a lawyer in order to end segregation in Philadelphia. He graduated from college in three and half years and enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1920. At Harvard too black students were segregated, according to university administrators, in order to “protect white students.” Nevertheless, black law students at Harvard formed social and professional organizations, such as the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Society and Nile Club, to network and practice their craft. Alexander graduated from Harvard in 1923, passed the Pennsylvania Bar, and returned to Philadelphia to practice law and end segregation there. In November 1923 he married Saddie Tanner Mossell, whom he had met at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1921 she received a PhD in economics and in 1925 earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. The couple had two daughters, Rae Pace and Mary Elizabeth Alexander.

In 1923 there were only thirteen black lawyers in Philadelphia. Black teachers, dentists, and doctors did well in the black community because they had a black clientele, but becoming a black lawyer was difficult because there was only one justice system, which was white and racist. In spite of racism Alexander was determined to succeed. In 1925 he successfully defended Louise Thomas, a black woman accused of murdering a black police officer. A white lawyer had litigated the case and lost but Alexander won it on appeal. During his summary he made the some of the jurists, all of whom were white, cry. Alexander was a passionate and extremely gifted lawyer and orator who understood the role of performance in law. His reputation continued to grow in Philadelphia and nationally as he continued to win cases for his black clients. For example he won a number of personal injury lawsuits against the Philadelphia Transit Authority (PTA). Before Alexander arrived on the scene the PTA paid black riders who were injured in accidents a “black fee” of $50 regardless of the severity of the injury or the degree of negligence by the PTA. Alexander forced the PTA to make four- and five-figure settlements with black plaintiffs.

Philadelphia was a northern city with southern race relations. Most stores did not serve African Americans and some had Jim Crow signs. Alexander also sued a number of hotels, theaters, and restaurants in Philadelphia for refusing to serve African Americans or exhibiting Jim Crow signs. In addition to public accommodation law suits Alexander was the lead attorney in the Berwyn school desegregation case. In 1932 the school board of Berwyn, a suburb of Philadelphia, built a new elementary school. The black residents of Berwyn refused to send their children to the school because it was segregated, and some parents were jailed for not sending their children to school. The parents hired Alexander and he built coalitions with such left- wing organizations as the International Labor Defense (ILD). In 1934 the school was desegregated, ending the two-year boycott, and Alexander's reputation grew.

During the forties and fifties Alexander continued to litigate important civil rights cases in Philadelphia and he was active in local politics. He also built strong relationships with the growing number of white liberal judges in the city. In 1948 he defended Thomas Mattox, a sixteen-year-old African American boy from Georgia who was accused of injuring a white driver in Georgia. The governor of Georgia wanted Mattox to be returned to Georgia for trial, but Alexander persuaded a Philadelphia judge that if Mattox were returned to Georgia he would be lynched.

That same year Alexander was hired by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to defend two of the six black men accused of murdering a white store-owner in Trenton, New Jersey, in what was known as the Trenton Six or the Northern Scottsboro case. This was during the Cold War, and the NAACP needed Alexander to win the case in order to discourage African Americans from joining the Communist Party or any other left-wing organization. The trial lasted fourteen weeks and the jury acquitted four of the men, including Alexander's clients, and the verdict made national headlines. Alexander used this success in his bid to be elected to the city council in Philadelphia.

Since 1933 Alexander had wanted to become a judge in Philadelphia, but neither political party supported his bid. In 1947 Alexander, previously a Republican, joined the Democratic Party and campaigned for Harry S. Truman. Switching parties was not uncommon among the black elite in Philadelphia, because both parties took the black vote for granted. In 1951 the Democrats sought to end Republican rule in Philadelphia, promising an end to corruption and an increase in the number of black city employees. The Democrats won the 1951 election and Alexander served as city councilman for eight years. As a councilman he tried to desegregate Girard College, a private school in north Philadelphia for white male orphans. Alexander argued that as city officials governed the college, and black tax dollars paid city officials, black boys therefore had the right to attend the college. From 1954 to 1958 Alexander litigated the case, but in 1958 he lost the case because Girard College created a private board to govern the school in order to prevent desegregation.

Alexander still longed to become a judge. By 1958, despite the city's large black population, there was only one African American judge in Philadelphia (by this time there were more black judges in Chicago and New York City). In order to obtain his judgeship Alexander threatened the leaders of Philadelphia's Democratic Party, who had endorsed Alexander's colleague Robert Nix Sr. for Congress, that he too would run for Congress. This would have spoiled the party leaders' plan, and Alexander obtained what he wanted. In 1959 the Pennsylvania governor George Leader appointed Alexander to the Court of Common Pleas. Alexander was the first African American Court of Common Pleas judge, and three thousand people, on a cold January afternoon, attended his swearing in ceremony at City Hall. In 1960 he was elected to a ten-year term.

During the 1960s Alexander supported the civil rights movement in the South, but opposed the civil rights struggle in the North and he despised Black Power. In 1969 Alexander wrote, in a letter to Robert Carter, a black attorney, that he fought “to destroy RACISM, both black and white racism, urge the end of race bigots, both black and white.” (Alexander to Carter, 6 March 1969, RPA papers, box 14, folder 19). Alexander's generation viewed Black Power as an empty slogan and they refused to find any common ground with younger activists. Alexander remained committed to litigation and building coalitions with white liberals. Alexander's contributions to the civil rights struggle were evident in the city because of an increase in the number of black lawyers, judges, politicians, and municipal workers. True to his commitment to hard work, Alexander died in his office in Philadelphia.

Bibliography

Portions of sketches by Alexander are located in the University of Pennsylvania Archives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On Alexander's role in the development of the black bar see J. Clay Smith, Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944 (1993). For An an analysis of his early life, professional life, and ideological influences see David Canton, “The Origins of a New Negro Lawyer: Raymond Pace Alexander, 1898–1923,” Western Journal of Black Studies 27 (Winter 2003): 127–138 in The Western Journal of Black Studies. For a study of the Berwyn school desegregation case see Canton, “A Dress Rehearsal for the Modern Civil Rights Movement: Raymond Pace Alexander and the Berwyn, Pennsylvania, School Desegregation Case, 1932–19354,” in Pennsylvania History 75 (Spring 2008): 260–284. The For a standard biography see Canton, Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fight for Civil Rights in Philadelphia (forthcoming 2010). An overview of his civil rights activity is in Kenneth Mack, “Law and Mass Politics in the Making of the Civil Rights Lawyer, 1931–1941,” in The Journal of American History 93 (June 2006): 37–62, and Mack, Representing the Race: Creating the Civil Rights Lawyer, 1920–1955 (2009 forthcoming).